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'IN DE BEGINNIN',' UJIMA'S GOOD-TIME CREATION STORY

Why waste words? Go see Ujima Company's spectacular production of "In De Beginnin'," the hellzapoppin' musical rendition of Genesis by legendary Chicago-born composer, singer, actor, playwright and director Oscar Brown Jr.

It's such a good time.

This is the kind of show Ujima does best. It's loaded with terrific music in the African-American gospel-blues tradition, with a book full of joyously wise, sly, witty, satirical lyrics by the King Rooster of them all. In fact, Brown's "Opportunity Please Knock" has been one of the hits of the ensemble company's repertoire for years.

The direction here is by Lorna C. Hill and features the whole Ujima company acting so fine, harmonizing perfectly and sliding up and down the stage together.

And there is this sort of naked guy. That's Adam, played by young song-and-dance man John Campfield Jr. Campbell is also responsible for the production's colorful and varied choreography, which is woven almost seamlessly into the creation tale.

Let's start where Brown does, with a narrative introduction to the creation story by the "Rev.", played by the show's musical director, Rodney Appleby. Appleby is superb as the Southern preacher who leads his faithful flock into an ethereal realm through the use of voice and astonishment alone. There is a great performance by his congregational choir as well, the musical Greek chorus of the piece. Eyes heavenward, tongues clucking, souls a-hootin', they are Nas Afi, the terrific Renee Armstrong, Jermain Cooper, Claudia Hardy-Randolph, Larry S. Sayres and Dwight E. Simpson.

In this play, De Lawd speaks for himself, as he would certainly insist. De Lawd, in this case, is an elegant explosion of silk and sequins in the person of Beverly Dove, who like Simpson and Armstrong was among the first members of Ujima when Hill founded the company 20 years ago.

The talented Dove has always been a warm and arresting physical presence, but seldom has she had an opportunity to present so majestically. God almighty, she's good as this powerful but sympathetic figure who just wants to fudge together a couple of varmints out of clay and get a snooze in by the end of the week. It was a stroke of genius for Hill to cast her in this role.

With an easy mixture of satire and grace, Brown evokes the complex relationship between God and man. Dove and Appleby play this relationship for all it's worth -- exhausted mama, whiny kid; lonely child, concerned parent -- the love, pain and gratitude are all mixed up together as they are in life. And you just know De Lawd has an extra bottle of Benadryl in her hip pocket in case she can't get the boy down for his nap.

I could go on. So I will.

Beyond the funny, there are joyously erotic moments between Adam and his lovely Eve, played by Roslyn Ruff, once they figure out what that's all about. Ruff and the Snake also have some prime time together.

This is a good show for youngsters as well as for adults. At least it is if you can get through to the kids that the Adam Family's very physical battles represent a power struggle in other realms and not a glorification of wife-battering. The subtleties of Brown's inflection in this regard may be lost on some children.

Overall, however, "In De Beginnin' " is so joyous, funny and full of wise observations about the nature of spirit and the relationship between man and woman that I would recommend it for just about anyone who can rhyme "bitter" with "critter." Oops, I've gone too far.

Applause, too, for the very fine musical accompaniment and sound effects by Percy Jones on keyboard and Gordy Rogers on drums.

Two other performances must be mentioned. The first is by Phil Knoerzer, white as a sheet and thrilled to be on this stage at this time as His Ugliness, de Debil. His wrestling match with De Lawd is a hoot. So is their second-act duet, and his outfits are to roast for. Never has Knoerzer looked more at home.

Finally, go see this show if only to get a load of one of best character performances you will ever see. Yes, it's the Megan Rose Krank show every time she slithers through her licks and sends out that creepy little snake thing with a soft hiss and the eyes of a cocker spaniel without lids.

Krank's sinuous and deliciously manipulative snake has the voice of a sneaky kitten -- ba-aad and cute. Her featured number, "The Serpent," is the only one here by Brown's son, the late Oscar "Bobo" Brown III. Purring and glistening, Krank slides into the light, bringing down the house with the snake's only plea for sympathy: "Every monin', right from scratch, ah's goes through a lonesome patch . . . "

This is a very funny and artful performance that gets an important assist from Tim Newell, a snake painter straight out of hell.

I won't go into the musical numbers themselves. You probably aren't familiar with their titles, but after a night with "In De Beginnin' " you'll never forget Oscar Brown Jr. It's a sharp and sophisticated show, all the more riotous for its head-scratching Uncle Remus pretense.

It's quite a bit funnier than Mark Twain at his best, by the way. Find more info, including music clips, on Oscar Brown and his gifted musical family at www.maggiebrown.com.

REVIEW
In De Beginnin'
Rating: **** 1/2
Gospel/jazz musical by Oscar Brown Jr., based on the first chapters of Genesis. Directed by Lorna C. Hill. Featuring John Campbell Jr., Rodney Appleby, Nas Afi, Renee Armstrong, Jermain Cooper, Claudia Hardy-Randolph, Larry S. Sayres, Dwight E. Simpson, Beverly Dove, Roslyn Ruff, Phil Knoerzer, Megan Rose Krank, Tim Newell. Performances continue Thursday to Saturday at 8 p.m., plus Sunday at 6 p.m., through Oct. 11. Ujima Theatre Company performing in TheaterLoft, 545 Elmwood Ave. (883-0380).

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